Early in life, Justin felt drawn to direct care, having watched members of his family go through their own struggles. He has worked as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) in Kennebec County for the last six years as a Brain Injury Specialist, helping people with brain injuries reach personal and professional goals.
What has your career path looked like?
I grew up in a big family with two uncles, one who had polio and another who was paralyzed from the waist down. My uncle who was paralyzed had a rare genetic disorder that caused his vocal cords to tighten up and his muscles to freeze. He had an eighth-grade education, but he was very smart and taught himself algebra. He was my main inspiration to get involved in direct care because he defied every barrier. The doctors said he wouldn’t live past the age of 12 and he lived to be 59 years old. My mother also worked with people who were developmentally disabled, so I kind of grew up around this kind of work.
When I got out of high school, a friend approached me about becoming a DSP. In 2000, I did home support in the Farmington area and became a DSP in 2006. In 2008, I got certified as a MHRT-1 (Mental Health Rehabilitation Technician), then did CBIS (Certified Brain Injury Specialist) training, and currently, I work as a Brain Injury Specialist. I’ve done job coaching; I’ve done CRMA (Certified Residential Medication Aid). I’ve been a team leader and a residential program manager. This is not case management. This is a front-line position. I’ve got a pretty diverse background in social services.
Usually the basic training is provided for and paid for by the employer upon hiring and most of the agencies will pay you for your time. I’ve also taken advantage of the employee reimbursement program to get my bachelor’s degree. All of my trainings and recertifications have been paid for by the company.
What do you consider success in your job?
I think the trainings helped, but honestly, getting to know the person you’re working with is most important. You have to find the balance to avoid power struggles. Knowing the person you’re working with, knowing their triggers, knowing what upsets them–if you can identify that before it becomes an issue, that’s the key to success. Always remember these are people–you’re a guest in their home, treat them with respect, and give them a sense of control over their life. The best gift you can give clients is to allow them independence.
How would you describe the impact of your work as a DSP?
I worked for a man for about two years who had gotten into an accident in the [military] service, which caused his brain injury. His balance was messed up; he was confined to a wheelchair and I was re-teaching him how to walk. When we first started, I was trying to motivate him to get up and do it, but it hurt him to walk, so we took baby steps. Before I went into another program, we got him to walk 75 feet with a gait belt. To go from a wheelchair to a gait belt (a device a caregiver uses with a patient who has mobility issues) within a year was amazing; his physical therapist said it couldn’t happen. When his parents came to visit, we got him out of the wheelchair, put him in the gait belt, and he walked 75 steps from his bedroom to the kitchen table. When he sat down in the kitchen chair, the look on his mother’s face was priceless. It made him more willing to keep trying to walk. For both of us, it was a personal and professional victory, because we both got to say to the physical therapist: ‘Told you so.’ That was the most rewarding experience I’ve had in a long time.
What advice would you give people who want to be a DSP?
Know yourself. Do your homework and see if it’s something you would like. Maybe set up an interview. It only costs your time. Contact local agencies and ask Human Resources questions about the job description. Ask yourself: ‘Can I handle what they’re asking?’
Call a community college, for example, the MHRT program at Kennebec Valley Community College, and ask them about the cost of the program and what it includes. The Muskey Center is a great resource. Find out services, education requirements, roles and functions, waivers, and if there’s any cost.
Job shadow someone for a couple of hours-they’re willing to let you. Know that day programs are different from residential programs. Find out more on the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and non-profit sites.
If you’ve been a Maine Guide, you might be a good fit in a day program because they go out and do day trips, but if you like cooking and arts and crafts, a residential program might be a good fit for you.
What kind of person is the right fit for your line of work, both in personality and character traits?
You have to be engaged, open-minded, and remember that’s who they are. To be a good listener and to be patient is key. You’ve got to be kind and caring, but have a thick skin.
People with brain injuries say things they don’t mean. You have to be patient and understanding, not controlling or domineering.
It helps if you are a self-starter, as there are a lot of bumps in the road, so take the initiative. Be savvy and learn to navigate emotional situations with your client.
You also have to have some professional boundaries with a client too. Let them into your life a little bit, but know your limits. It’s a fine line of what you can divulge. Don’t take your work home with you–be able to block some stuff out.
What do you wish people outside the industry knew about your daily challenges?
The daily challenges are tough, depending on the client. We have one client who is confined to bed and needs personal care, showers, medications, and doctor’s appointments. There is a lot that goes into this job. Each client presents a whole set of tasks. Some people can do things on their own and others can’t even go to the bathroom without assistance. So, the challenge is knowing what your limitations are and what you’re willing to do. If you’re not willing to provide showers and personal care, this is probably not the job for you. But if you don’t mind that and you like going on outings with clients, and meeting deadlines, and you’re very detailed, you can do this job.
What do you want them to know about the rewards of your line of work?
Oh, there are many. If you like to see people with mental and physical barriers reach goals they never thought was possible–that’s a big one. The other reward is seeing people go from ‘I can’t do it’ to ‘I get it now.’ That’s amazing; again, it goes back to giving people independence. The best reward is knowing you helped them do it. You also get to do fun trips: like going to zoos, camping, and fishing. You also get to help them get jobs, learn how to fill out applications, things like that.